Post Author: Stacey Midge
I don’t take advice very well to begin with, but when I do, I prefer to take it from someone who has been through what I’m facing. So, I can understand the looks of skepticism as the happy couple realizes that I’m not married. My credibility has just flown out the window – and they don’t even realize the extent to which I am the Queen of Unsustainable Relationships. I push through this by being very up front about it. “I don’t know how to be married. But I do know some things about communication and conflict, and I can help you prepare for some of the challenges you might face.”
Usually, their doubts are somewhat eased, but mine still rage. Do I really know anything about relationships? If I did, wouldn’t I be in one? What do I know about sharing a life with someone? Accommodating my dog is about all the space I can make for another being in my life on most days. What business do I have counseling people about commitment? In seconds, I am back in that same hopelessly inadequate frame of mind, terrified that nothing in either my education or my life experience has prepared me to be a pastor in this situation.
In one particular session, inevitably, we’re talking about unrealistic expectations; I jokingly mention the list I’d made in my early 20s of the characteristics I absolutely required in a partner. Let’s just say I was an academic snob who expected some combination between an adoring audience, a mind reader, and a professional hockey player – with a PhD. “Oh, that’s why you’re still not married at your age,” says the shining young groom. Apparently I missed the memo that thirty is still considered old maid material. I have to bite back a snarky response about my hesitance to marry perhaps being related to the amount of time I spend listening to couples gripe at each other in front of a perfect stranger. I won’t say it, no matter how much I want to. I’m a professional.
However, being a professional doesn’t protect me from the perceptions of my competence or lack thereof based on my singleness. It certainly doesn’t guard me from my own emotional baggage, all of which seems to float to the surface when I’m faced with optimistic pairs of faces and clasped hands sitting on the loveseat in my office. (Is it a coincidence that I never sit there? I think not.) I’m just trying to help this couple talk to each other, but inside my head is a boiling stew of mixed feelings.
My ambivalence about the institution of marriage as it is popularly conceived and regulated, frustration at government benefits given to married couples, rampant terror of commitment, wonderings about whether I’ll still be happy if I’m still single in twenty years, and resultant fear that I might not be… What I say is, “What might be a good way for you to deal with your anger rather than blowing up?” but what I’m thinking is that it’s my brain that is feeling volcanic.
So much energy is required to hold all this in that, at the end of the sessions, I am utterly drained. I think I’ve done an acceptable job with the counseling, but it takes its toll. I need my friends, a moment to breathe, and a glass of good wine. I know now that premarital counseling does this to me, and I prepare accordingly in advance. I will love the wedding; I always do. However, I will probably always dread the counseling.
Maybe someday it will become just another part of my job, like late-night emergency phone calls, unexpected funerals, and spontaneous requests to pray in public…but maybe not. Maybe it will always bring up feelings of fear and inadequacy. Regardless, I can’t escape this task entirely, and so I remind myself of something that I remember much more easily in any other situation: I can’t tell them what to do anyway. Advice is overrated, being generally unappreciated and almost as generally just unhelpful. I don’t have to have been where they are, because I don’t have to tell them what to do. My call is to listen, and to help them listen and talk to each other. Married or single, that is something I can do.
Rev. Stacey Midge is Minister for Mission, Outreach, and Youth at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, New York.
Image by: Nietjuh
Used with permission